Redox North’s Makerspace Roots
If you build it, solutions will come
Welcome to Founder Friday Origins, a new series about the Highway1 startups and how they got started. Up first: Redox North.
Thunder Bay, Canada, 2016: competition day had arrived for the Lakehead Engineering Competition (LEC) at Lakehead University, and Brad Momberg didn’t have a team. “They all dropped out the day of,” Momberg recalls, “so I picked up the one teammate I had left, and he said ‘Wait, I know a guy who plays around with Arduinos; he’s a bit of a hacker.’” That was all Momberg needed to know: he headed to the campus library looking for a quote-unquote “very tall person” by the name of Kyle Rodrigues, and found him in fairly short order working on homework.
“Are you Kyle?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Rodrigues responded.
Momberg tossed him a t-shirt. “Let’s go, we’ve got a competition to win.”
It wasn’t easy; they had a broken Arduino and a cable that flat-out refused to work. But in the end, Momberg and Rodrigues’s team emerged victorious, and came in fifth overall at the regional competition a month later.
Their paths would’ve crossed eventually: Momberg studied electrical engineering at Georgian College in his hometown of Barrie, Ontario before transitioning to Lakehead, while Rodrigues did much the same at Brampton’s Sheridan College. Rodrigues also spent quality time at a local makerspace until he decided he “wanted to be the one building stuff, not just fixing stuff” and headed to university. Not long after their victory at LEC, they joined Lakehead’s engineering student society with an eye toward starting a makerspace. “We wanted to try to make the school a little better than it was when we started,” Rodrigues recalls. “We got to decide how we wanted the room: we drew up blueprints and they renovated the room to spec. They gave us a budget, and we bought all the equipment we needed.”
Coincidentally, that equipment would also come in handy for a graphene supercapacitor project Momberg and Rodrigues had been considering. “I’ve always been interested in graphene,” Momberg says. “The standard joke is that it can do everything except make it out of the lab; I needed to know why.” After reading a research paper on graphene’s potential as an energy storage medium, they were intrigued. “For the first three months, our prototypes were really bad; you could make a better capacitor with aluminum foil and paper. But eventually, we reached the same results the publication did — and then we started beating them. The next thing we knew, we were at 3x the energy density they were able to achieve.”
The two spent long hours in the makerspace going over other methods, noting what worked and what didn’t, and getting good and scrappy with their available resources. “It was a fun challenge,” Rodrigues notes. “A lot of the materials originally referenced in the paper were things a bigger university could just buy direct from American manufacturers for $100/sqft. We found others who could give it to us for a fraction of the cost, which meant we were able to make something actually useful — nobody’s going to buy something that costs $100/sqft to make.”
“It’s amazing the extent to which you can actually troubleshoot and solve problems when you don’t have the money to buy the real solution,” Momberg chuckles. “We didn’t have the money for proper capacitance testers that were large enough to test our technology, so we had to build them ourselves.”
According to Rodrigues, “The laser we used wasn’t actually designed to do what we needed it to, so we hacked it.” The entire process, he says, was full of little problems that helped tremendously “because now we’re the only ones who know how to solve these issues.” The pair of undergrads quickly drained the available pool of local expertise, working with everyone at the university even remotely connected to their research.
When it came time to graduate, Momberg and Rodrigues got an outstanding grade on their project, but neither of them felt the work was remotely done. “We looked at our report and started seeing all the deficiencies we’d left, the things we didn’t have time to fix, the ways we could’ve improved it,” Momberg recalls. “I wasn’t happy leaving it at that; I needed to know what this technology was capable of.” They were accepted into an incubator program in Thunder Bay and continued to pursue their work in the makerspace they’d started, eventually producing results that pointed to some definite commercial applications. Redox North was born.
After attending a PCH-sponsored hackathon in Waterloo, Rodrigues kept Highway1 in the back of his mind. As their stint at the local incubator ran down, the duo looked up the Highway1 timeline and marveled at the coincidence. “It started within two days of our other program ending,” Momberg says. “We’ve been incredibly lucky. There’s been a lot of hard work, too, but the timing worked out amazingly.” Redox North applied and was accepted, and after a 14-hour road trip from Thunder Bay to Toronto and a flight to San Francisco, they walked through the doors of Highway1.
“We’re happy to be in an environment where we can ask questions and grow and learn from people,” Rodrigues says. “Half the problem we had before was explaining what a capacitor was.”
Momberg is excited to talk to the people actually working in their company’s conceptual space. “I can’t imagine a better place to do that than right here.”